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Idlewild Historic District
|Location:||U.S. 10, Idlewild, Michigan|
|Area:||1,300 acres (530 ha)|
|Added to NRHP:||June 07, 1979|
Idlewild Historic District
|Location:||U.S. 10, Idlewild, Michigan|
|Area:||1,300 acres (530 ha)|
|Added to NRHP:||June 07, 1979|
Idlewild is a vacation and retirement community in Yates Township located in a small rural northwestern part of the U.S. state of Michigan near the southeastern border of Lake County. It was one of only a few resorts in the country where African-Americans were allowed to vacation and purchase property before this discrimination became illegal in 1964.
Idlewild surrounds the lake it was named for. The headwaters of the Pere Marquette River run through here, with a couple of public access points adjacent to Broadway Road, where it crosses. About half of the township is contained in the Manistee National Forest.
Called the "Black Eden", from 1912 through the mid-1960s, Idlewild was an active year-round community and was visited by well-known entertainers and professionals from throughout the country. At its peak it was the most popular resort in the Midwest and as many as 25,000 would come to Idlewild in the height of the summer season to enjoy camping, swimming, boating, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, roller skating and night-time entertainment.
When the 1964 Civil Rights Act opened up other resorts to African-Americans, Idlewild's boomtown period subsided but the community continues to be an important place for vacationers and retirees and as a heritage landmark.
The Idlewild African American Chamber of Commerce was founded in the summer of 2000 by businessman John O. Meeks for the purpose of promoting existing local businesses and for attracting newer ones to the Lake County area.
The community of Idlewild continues to be recognized as one of the oldest, most famous, and most memorable African American resort communities in contemporary United States history. Idlewild was founded one hundred years ago in 1912. Recognized as an intellectual center for African Americans, Idlewild was and continues to be an oasis for black economic success and community development.
During the second decade of the twentieth century, a small yet clearly distinguishable African American middle class largely composed of professionals and small businessmen and women had been established in several urban centers. Like many urbanites, they wanted the opportunity for recreational pursuits in a setting removed far from racism and discrimination in the cities. In this time period of strict racial segregation, such an escape was nowhere to be found in the midwest for African Americans.
Because Northwest Michigan represented a likely location to establish a resort for African Americans, four white land developers and their wives organized the Idlewild Resort Company (IRC). Erastus Branch and his wife, Flora, and Adelbert Branch and his wife, Isabelle, from White Cloud, Michigan, and Wilbur M. Lemon and his wife, Mayme, and A.E. Wright and his wife, Modolin, of Chicago, organized IRC during the pre-World War I era. To secure land rights, E.G. Branch built a cabin, homesteaded the island for three years, and eventually obtained the title to the island through his Branch, Anderson & Tyrrell Real Estate Company, which became the central focus of the resort community.
One folk saying suggests it refers to Idle men and wild women. Current residents embrace this version of the story by selling playful t-shirts at the annual Idlewilders summer festivals that read "Idle Men and Wild Women!"
Whatever the circumstances, IRC organized its first excursion to attract middle class African American professionals from Detroit, Chicago, and other Midwestern cities to tour the rustic community. During their visit lots were sold.
A 1919 pamphlet used to promote the community, which was produced and distributed by IRC, entitled "Beautiful Idlewild," describes Idlewild as "the hunter’s paradise," as a place renowned "for its beautiful lakes of pure spring water" and "its myriads of game fish."
One prominent personality to relocate to Idlewild was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams who, in 1893 became the first surgeon in the United States to perform open-heart surgery. Dr. Dan, as he was to be later called in Idlewild, Herman O. and Lela G. Wilson of Chicago, three of Dr. Dan’s associates from Chicago and Cleveland, and twenty others were among the first group of African American professionals to join IRC’s excursion. Later, tours were conducted from Chicago, Indiana, Detroit, Grand Rapids, St. Louis, and other cities by train.
IRC had acquired over 2,700 acres (11 km2) of land. The company sold a good deal of that land, and then turned the island over to Dr. Dan and Louis B. Anderson of Chicago, and Robert Riffe and William Green of Cleveland, who collaboratively formed the Idlewild Improvement Association (IIA) and helped build the clubhouse. IIA sold property to such notables as NAACP co-founder, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, cosmetic entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, Lemuel L. Foster, president of Fisk University, Dr. Albert B. Cleage, Sr. of Detroit, and the famous African-American novelist Charles Waddell Chesnutt.
IIA was also responsible for recruiting other middle-class professionals such as William Pickens, field secretary of the NAACP, the Reverend H. Franklin Bray, a missionary and early settler in the community, along with his wife, Virginia Bray, who together founded the first formal church in Idlewild, and the Reverend Robert L. Bradby, Sr. of Second Baptist Church of Detroit, who was instructional in significantly contributing to the development of the Idlewild Lot Owners Association. IIA encouraged this new influx of community leaders to foster racial pride, economic development, decency, and respect to Idlewild.
One activity that garnered much respect from outsiders, including Michigan Republican Governor Fred Green, was the annual Idlewild Chautauqua organized by Reverend Bradby. These Chautauqua events, which lasted for one week, added a unique intellectual favor to the recreational life in the community. People came from everywhere to participate in the event.
Leon E. Bates retired UAW-Leader; Yates Township Supervisor and Lake County Commissioner, he was favored to win re-election to his third term as the Yates Township supervisor at the time of his untimely death in 1972.
Idlewild, by then known throughout the United States as the Black Eden of Michigan, had become one of the few places middle class African Americans could find peace of mind, and could escape systematic practices of racism and discrimination in North America.
As this new black intelligentsia began to settle in the community, some relocated as activists and members of Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), some as followers of Du Bois’ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), others as believers of the late Booker T. Washington’s political machine, and others as potential investors. However, for the majority of these professionals who brought their families, the idea of land ownership conveyed black social status and membership in this community.
Idlewild quickly became the intellectual center for economic development and community progress in Black America during the Pre World War II era. The ILOA (Idlewild Land Owners Association), for example, had become a national organization with members from over thirty-four states in the country. In addition, the Purple Palace, Paradise Clubhouse and the Idlewild Clubhouse, Rosanna Tavern, and Pearl’s Bar provided summer entertainment for tourists and employment opportunities for seasonal and year round residents in the community. The Pere Marquette Railroad built a branch line to the area by 1923. A post office opened that same year, with Susie J. Bantom as the first postmaster. The Idlewild Fire Department was established, and a host of new entrepreneurs began entering the community. Paradise Palace became McKnight’s Convalescent Home.
Idlewild during the Post World War II era attracted what some sociologists have labeled the new African American "working" middle class. With the construction of a few paved roads in Idlewild, a reinvestment in the township’s only post office on the island, and greater availability of electricity, a new generation of Black entrepreneurs began to invest in Idlewild. Phil Giles, Arthur "Big Daddy" Braggs, and a host of other African American businessmen and women took advantage of the market by purchasing property on Williams Island and Paradise Gardens, and began developing these areas into an elaborate nightspot and business center. Dr. Louis Cleage and his brothers, Hugh and Henry, expanded the original cottage that his father, Dr. Albert B. Cleage, Sr. had started in the 1940s. Warren Evans, Dr. Cleage's nephew is the current Sheriff of Wayne County, Michigan. He spent almost every summer in Idlewild, from the early 1950s on with his brothers, Dale and Blair and a sister, Jan and cousin, Dr. Ernest Martin and their families.
The face of both nightspots, The Flamingo and Paradise Clubs, featured well-known entertainers, who when they performed elsewhere were forced to submit to segregation.
Della Reese, Al Hibbler, Bill Doggett, Jackie Wilson, T-Bone Walker, George Kirby, The Four Tops, Roy Hamilton, Brook Benton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Choker Campbell, Lottie "the Body" Graves, the Rhythm Kings, the Harlem Brothers, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Fats Waller, and Billy Eckstein and many other performers, entertained thousands of Idlewilders and white citizens in neighboring Lake County townships throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
The names Phil Giles, Dr. Louis Cleage and Arthur Braggs became synonymous with Idlewild. Braggs’ produced singers, dancers, showgirls, and entertainers, which helped Idlewild to become the Summer Apollo of Michigan. Arthur Braggs produced the famous "Arthur Braggs Idlewild Revue" which not only performed in Idlewild but was also taken on the road to Montreal, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York just to name a few cities. Braggs' show helped Idlewild become a major entertainment mecca and contributed to the financial prosperity of the area.
Phil Giles, on the other day, was a respected businessman in the community, and eventually became mayor of Idlewild. Dr. Cleage was one of the only resident physicians who owned property on Idlewild lake and served the community in the Summer months. You may add Dr. L. Nelson was a resident physician. He lived there year round and serviced both black and white for many years . He is viewed by many residents as a leader, humanitarian in all of Lake Cty. He owned The El Morocco Club, which was the best after hours place . His home and office burned down in the 70's . He was a devoted family man. His daughter, America Nelson became a physican too .
With the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the many rebellions that followed in 1968, the Vietnam War and national recession in the early 1970s, not to mention the availability of the credit cards and the inability of seasonal business owners in Idlewild to be competitive with other vacation outlets in the United States (which were now open to African Americans), the community suffered a significant social and economic loss. The children of many of the old families who were born in the community were now forced to relocate to other cities in Michigan and elsewhere to find suitable employment to care for their families.
As the community underwent a significant population decline, Idlewild became a lesser-known family vacation and retirement community. The community began to take on a new identity. An increasing number of new retirees, many who visited the area during its prime, relocated to the community and launched an intensive revitalization effort. Blight, trash, and junk cars were concerns that demanded the immediate attention of citizens in the township.
With these changes and other community concerns, Township officials organized a planning commission, zoning board, and other in-group initiatives as a way to encourage community input and to offer specific practical solutions to improve the community. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) were obtained for demolition, additional roadwork, and other structural changes, which resulted in a complete, make over of the island. By 1977, under the leadership of Harry Solomon, Yates Township Supervisor at the time, the community formally renamed "The Island" to "Williams Island" as a tribute in honor of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams.
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While the Yates Township (which surrounds Idlewild) population began to slowly increase, it continued to do so through a disproportionate number of retirees. However, the projected growth in business and employment opportunities that would serve the needs of these new residents was not occurring.
A heavy burden was placed on seasonal residents to pay for community facilities and services for year around homeowners with limited incomes. By the early 1990s, federal and state funding was becoming scarce. The community’s attention was turned away from building projects and turned toward the renovation of existing township properties. Continued clean up of the community and community pride among all citizens were high priorities for the township government. Although these pragmatic developments were taking place, the community continued to suffer from a poor economy. Then under the leadership of the Clinton-Gore Administration came a pilot rural policy initiative, which followed a pilot urban policy development that fostered collaborative partnerships between business, government, grassroots organizations, and organized community agencies. Community participation in Idlewild and Lake County, Michigan resulted in a vision for social change. This vision was partially fulfilled when the federal government designated Lake County, Michigan, as an Enterprising Community, a designation, which encouraged two important major economic development projects, a sewer system and natural gas.
Although Idlewild’s tourism has significantly declined from what it used to be, African Americans throughout the United States still maintain strong ties to the community through frequent visits and their involvement in the National Idlewilders Club annual celebrations including the Idlewild Jazz Festival. The National Idlewilders consists of local chapters in six cities. In addition, the National Lot Owners Association with local chapters in eight cities contributes to the community’s significance. Finally, the memories and activism of year-round, seasonal, and former Idlewild residents and visitors who now live throughout the United States and abroad are evidence of the continuing significance of the community.
During the year 1992 the community of Idlewild witnessed the entrance of several new small business owners. Harrison R. Wilson, a longtime resident, was on the verge of retiring as Lake County Commissioner in order to provide the necessary leadership needed to nurture the Yates Township DART System. Larry’s Nursery and Landscaping, owned by Larry and Judy Portis, was fully operational, so was Burns Construction Company, which is owned by former Yates Township Supervisor Norman R. Burns, the East Meets West Boutique, owned by James and Larnell Cox, as well as Morton’s Motel, owned by John O. Meeks.
The accomplishments of these new establishments may have been gradual signs of proof of economic development and rebirth in the community, but none were more significant than the community services to follow by Mr. John O. Meeks. Having relocated to Idlewild from Detroit, after retiring from the Detroit Public Schools system and a successful dry cleaning business, Meeks purchased the old Morton Motel in Idlewild in 1989, and immediately began renovating it in 1991. Being a visionary by seeing a need for motel accommodations in the community, Meeks was creative when he added a multi-purpose room to the 17-room motel with kitchenettes in ten of the units. However, Meeks’ work did not end there. He purchased a second motel in the area, and began to look for other ways to promote the community. Hoping to spark others’ interest, Meeks founded the Mid-Michigan Idlewilders and was able to get a charter through the national Idlewilders organization. Mid-Michigan has since grown to a membership of one hundred active members, and a waiting list of fifty potential members wanting to join the organization. By always working to promote Idlewild, Meeks, the founding president of the Mid-Michigan Idlewilders, who is now president emeritus of the group, recently took on to another pet project, which involves the redevelopment of a defunct chamber of commerce in Idlewild, an organization that was originally founded by Phil Giles of the Phil Giles Enterprise in the 1950s.
During the summer of 2000, Meeks founded the Idlewild African American Chamber of Commerce for the purpose of promoting existing local businesses and for attracting newer ones to the area. Within a year’s time, the organization has grown under Meeks’ leadership from one to ten business members.
In 2006, Idlewild, like most of Lake County, is well on its way to revitalizing community life for its residents. Attendance at the annual summer festivals has steadily increased since 2000. The Idlewild Jazz Festival attracts performers and fans from all over the midwest, many without any idea about the rich history of the area. Long time summer residents enjoy the 4th of July Parade and Idlewilder's Weekend with their children, grand and great-grandchildren. Middle-aged adults are starting to take over long abandoned properties, remodeling them, buying jetskis, and installing satellite dishes to accommodate the more modern tastes of their children. While the competition of major tourist destinations will keep Idlewild from becoming what it once was for African American families, the area is slowly moving towards repairing decades of neglect.
Some residents view Idlewild as an eden community, some embrace this designation and want it to be a retirement and family community, while others seek to revitalize it and make it a new black resort community in post-modern North American history. By either account, Idlewild is on the comeback.
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